Movie: Paper Moon (1973)

This movie should have been crap.  Overwrought, sentimental, melodramatic crap.

In the depression-era great plains, a con man and a nine-year-old girl he claims isn’t his daughter (but most certainly is) squabble and do various cons in an effort to get her to the girl’s only remaining known (emphasis on known) family in St. Joseph, Missouri.  Turns out this hardened little girl is not only a great assistant in her allegedly (but most definitely) father’s schemes, but has some interesting tricks up her sleeves as well. 

I can’t believe this, but Paper Moon is amazing and completely worthy of the great accolades heaped upon it.

First: the girl is played by Tatum O’Neal, and the con man is played by Ryan O’Neal.  Yep—real-life father and daughter play father and daughter in movie.  This kind of casting should fail and yet, somehow, Tatum is complete command of the screen.  With a boy’s haircut and most frequently dressed in overalls and plaid shirt, she is a tough customer with a withering scowl.  Taking home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Tatum was the youngest person to receive an Academy Award in a competitive category.

Her father doesn’t fare quite as well in the film; however, he is more convincing in this movie than in many others I have seen him in.  O’Neal has never been a bad actor, per se, but I always feel like we see the mask his characters slip occasionally in his performances.  That happens here a couple of times, but he is still captivating as somebody who is gifted in the art of deception, though not quite as brilliant as he thinks he is. 

Where the movie really shines is in the interplay between these two characters.  It is more complicated and nuanced than I would have expected, or that I can explain adequately here.  While the dialogue often as a real spark to it, body language and gestures say so much more.  At one point, Ryan nervously pours long streams of sugar into his coffee to the extent that I wonder how the resulting sludge could actually be swallowed.   

The movie wisely stays with Tatum’s point of view.  We never know more than she does, and the increasingly complexity of her scheming happens organically.  This isn’t the kind of film that has a kid suddenly do devious things of inexplicable cunning just for a cheap laugh.  I really believed this character could do what she does, based on what we see her observe.

Paper Moon is filmed in gorgeous black and white.  It so strongly evokes a particular time and place that I kept thinking certain shots were staged like famous photographs from that era, though I couldn’t recall what those photos might be.  Such is the power of movies, when they are as good as this one, where you believe the characters and you are taken with them on a journey through a mystical time and place.

Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

Starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal

Watched on Kanopy